I had been content to let Calling Caldecott’s enlightening discussion about A Fine Dessert speak for itself, and the subsequent publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington a year later was more than anything a spectacular example of bad timing–by the time A Fine Dessert was gathering outrage, A Birthday Cake was well on its way to publication.
While the Horn Book Magazine gave A Fine Dessert a fine (and fair) review, I have never personally been the book’s biggest fan. It is too much of a grandma-trap for me, looking like it would be altogether right at home in Restoration Hardware, stacked invitingly next to a artfully disarrayed pile of artisanal throw rugs in subtle shades of lavender. I imagine that it is this coziness that makes the book’s inclusion of a slave family so disquieting to so many.
Even if A Fine Dessert had never been published, I can’t imagine the Magazine would have chosen A Birthday Cake for George Washington for review. If others were troubled by A Fine Dessert‘s positioning slavery as just another selection in a candy-box history, I was affronted by A Birthday Cake‘s relentlessly grinning slaves cheerful pitching in so their owner could have his cake. Those are Ted Rand-level teeth.
So that’s what I think of those two books. What troubles me more than either of them is the subsequent reactions of the various involved parties. After A Fine Dessert got into hot water, illustrator Sophie Blackall attempted to defend the book in a blog post and gamely engaged her commenters. Good for her. I was less happy with Emily Jenkins’ statement, posted as a comment on the Calling Caldecott blog and elsewhere: “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.” It bugs me that she threw Blackall under the bus and spoke of the book as if it were hers alone; it bothers me that she felt no call to explain her change of heart; it disgusts me that she uses such a historically loaded term as “reparations” to describe her donation. (And “fee”? What does she mean? Her advance? Who gets the royalties?)
While Random House, the publisher of A Fine Dessert, was conspicuously absent in the debate about the book, I have to give props to Scholastic editor Andrea Pinkney for her defense of A Birthday Cake. And, more credit to her, she did not wait for critics to pounce but posted her thoughts about the book the day after it was published. But while I acknowledge Pinkney’s courage and integrity, I thought it was unfortunate that in defending A Birthday Cake she also threw A Fine Dessert under the bus, saying that the two books are “vastly different” but never explaining how. (I mean, the books are vastly different, but not in the ways they do and do not address the whitewashing of slavery.) Incidentally, Andrea and I had breakfast in New York just before Christmas, and we talked about the similar–yet vastly different, if you will–reactions to Pat and Fred McKissack’s Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, published by Scholastic in 1994. There’s an article in that if anyone wants to write it.
But now it appears that higher heads than Andrea’s have prevailed at Scholastic and A Birthday Cake for George Washington has been recalled, something I can only remember happening when Random House published a Charlotte Zolotow title under Louise Fitzhugh’s name and Lerner published a Holocaust memoir that was subsequently shown to be fabricated and/or delusional. I believe this is a mistake. It shows a lack of respect for their author, illustrator, and editor–and for readers, who, given the reviews of this title in Kirkus and SLJ, and the lively discussion of the book’s merits and flaws (mostly flaws) on the internet, would hardly be taken unawares. Just take your lumps, Scholastic, and learn from your mistakes. It isn’t the first time a misguided book has been published and it won’t be the last. By caving in to public pressure–which, given you know no more about the book now than you did when you decided to publish it, is exactly what is happening–you demonstrate a craven lack of faith in your own standards. Had A Birthday Cake for George Washington remained in the public arena, along with A Fine Dessert and the many other books about slavery in this country, it would in turn become part of the children’s-literature record, an object lesson for those books as yet unwritten. That’s how books get better.